Hiding in plain sight: A sculpture of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

Glenn Benson, our Hon. Curator of Artefacts, looks at one of our artefacts that, despite being displayed on the fireplace in the Library for many years, is often overlooked.

Published on 13th April 2023

Above the fireplace in the Library is a small relief sculpture commemorating the life of an extraordinary man: botanist, traveller, geneticist, and later ideological prisoner Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

Sculpture of Vavilov
Sculpture of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov by unknown artist presented to the Society in 1997 by Prof. Viktor Alexander Dragavtsev (photo credit: the author)

Vavilov was roughly the age that I am now when he died eighty years ago, as a result of the harsh treatment to which he was exposed as a prisoner at the hands of the Stalinist regime in Russia. Born in 1887, his relatively short life covered a period of great change in Europe, that included revolutions, famine, two world wars and importantly, the beginnings of the scientific study of genetics. These factors would influence his later life.

Between 1912 and 1914 Vavilov and his new wife Yekaterina, also a scientist, studied in France, Germany, and the UK. While in the UK they would meet William Bateson FLS (1861-1926) of the John Innes Horticultural Institute, the person credited with the first use of the term "genetics" in relation to heredity. In 1919, Bateson also co-founded The Genetics Society with one of the first female Fellows of The Linnean Society of London, Edith Rebecca Saunders FLS (1865–1945), the "Mother of British Plant Genetics".

"In order to understand evolution and to guide our breeding work scientifically, even in application to our principal crops such as maize, wheat and cotton, we must go to the oldest agricultural countries, where the keys to the understanding of evolution are hidden." – Vavilov, 1926

From 1916 to 1940 Vavilov would undertake around one hundred scientific explorations to over fifty countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. These travels would lead him to formulate his theory on the “centers of origin” of plant cultivation; Vavilov argued that plants were not domesticated somewhere in the world at random, but in regions where there was a high diversity of natural relatives of domesticated crop plants.

In 1924 Vavilov was made Director of the Soviet Institute of Applied Botany in St Petersburg, which had been founded in 1894. Now known as the N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Research Institute of Plant Industry, or more commonly the Vavilov Research Institute (VRI). The VRI now holds over 350,000 samples of cultivated species of plant and their wild counterparts. It is credited as the world’s first “seed bank”, a repository of the world’s plant genetic material, an "ark" for the world’s plants.

Medal depicting the Vavilov Research Institute
Bronze struck medal depicting the Vavilov Research Institute (VRI), issued to mark the centenary of the institute in 1994, given to the Society by Prof. Viktor Alexander Dragavtsev in 1997 (photo credit: the author)

The "ark" was almost destroyed in World War II when the Nazis besieged St Petersburg (then Leningrad) for 28 months (1941-1944). Over a million people perished during the siege, many from starvation. Between the German bombardment of the city and the threat of the starving people raiding the repository of food plants in their midst, the Institute and its valuable contents somehow survived. There are tales of great heroism and personal sacrifice by the VIR’s staff who, despite their own terrible circumstances, protected the valuable contents of the Institute. Hitler appreciated the scientific value of the contents of the Institute, but Russia did not, choosing to focus its efforts on protecting the treasures of the nearby Hermitage Museum.

Vavilov was found guilty in 1941 of "sabotage of Soviet agriculture and spying for Britain". Stalin was, in effect, using Vavilov and his state disapproved scientific methods as a scapegoat for the famine that Russia had experienced in the 1930s. Originally sentenced to be shot but commuted to twenty years imprisonment in a labour camp, Nikolai Vavilov died of diseases associated with malnutrition on the 26th of January 1943.

A set of Russian stamps issued in 1977 to mark what would have been the 90th birthday of Vavilov.
A set of Russian stamps issued in 1977 to mark what would have been the 90th birthday of Vavilov. Photographed against the image of the interior of the Vavilov institute. (Stamps: collection of the author; photo credit: the author)

It was not until the mid-1950s that Vavilov and his scientific work began to be officially recognised, and his grave remained unknown and unmarked until the 1970s. The postage stamps seen here were issued in 1977 to mark what would have been his 90th birthday. They are pictured against an image of the famous little metal drawers in which the VIR store many of their specimens.

There is a visual connection between the design of the stamps, and our sculpture. Both use a portrait of Vavilov, based on photographic images of him from the late 1920s, early 1930s, and the ear or spike of a cereal crop, possibly Barley (Hordeum). The sculpture of Vavilov was given to the Society, along with the medal in April 1997 by Prof. Viktor Alexander Dragavtsev, then Director of the VIR.

I have not done justice here to the full life and works of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, and I would encourage you to read the papers of the centenary symposium held on the 26th of November 1987, hosted jointly by the Linnean Society and Institute of Archaeology and published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 39, Issue 1, January 1990. The Linnean Society Library also holds many books on the life and work of Vavilov.

In a world of increasing "food insecurity" due to conflict, the climate emergency, habitat and biodiversity loss, and the over-reliance on perhaps only twelve staple crops to feed the world, the pioneering work and foresight of Vavilov, the "VIR" and the other scientific centres like it around the world is ever more relevant, and our future will depend on looking back on their work.


Vavilov and his Institute: a history of the world collection of plant genetic resources in Russia, Igor G. Loskutov (Vavilov-Frenkel Fellow, 1993), International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy

Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 39, Issue 1, January 1990.

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, Peter Pringle, 2008.

Seeds of the Earth, The Vavilov Institute, Mario Del Curto, 2017.

Where our food comes from – Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, Gary Paul Nabhan, 2009.

Kingdom of Plants, Will Benson, Collins, 2012.